To become a documentary filmmaker, you need to learn the basics of filmmaking and documentary production and develop a strong intuition for stories. You also need to find your voice and approach to documentary filmmaking. Remember that the best documentary filmmakers can combine an interesting story with a strong personal point of view. So if you’re ready to become a documentary filmmaker, read on for some tips!
My Documentary Career
There are many paths to the profession of documentary filmmaking. I learned the system for 16 years in the United Kingdom (UK), making films for the BBC, Channel 4, and others. Then I spent another ten years in France, making films mainly for the Franco-German channel Arte.
I ended up directing 16 full-length films and working on many other productions also. Films of which I remain proud to this day.
What Does It Take to Become a Documentary Filmmaker?
It’s no secret that making a documentary film isn’t easy. Documentary filmmakers not only have to invest a lot of time and effort into planning and executing a project, but they also have to be able to tell a compelling story that captivates their audience.
The rewards for a successful documentary, however, can be great. Documentaries can’t only inform and entertain audiences but also change lives. If you want to become a documentary filmmaker, there are a few things to remember.
- First, you must get your feet wet by working on others’ projects. This way, you can learn about filmmaking and gain valuable experience.
- You’ll also need to develop a good understanding of the different aspects of filmmaking, such as camera work, editing, and sound design. It’s also important that you can work well with others because most documentaries are team efforts.
- And finally, you need to be passionate about your subject. The best documentaries are made by filmmakers who’re truly passionate about their subject.
My Three Most Important Pieces of Advice
Trust your passion: if you have a passion for the subject you want to make a film about, pursue it. If you feel strongly about your chosen topic, that’s half the battle. You and your passion for your subject will bring your film to life. It’s not the camera, it’s not the editing, it’s not the music, it’s not the funding. It’s your passion. Without it, you won’t get far.
Get used to rejection: no matter what documentary project you’ve, it’ll be rejected by other people. Not just once, but many times. You must get used to it. If you don’t, it’ll paralyze you. Don’t take it personally because you can’t take it personally. The “no “s are part of the process.
Get used to hard work: if you follow the above points and find a way to fund, your path will be hard work. You’ll have to work hard because someone has to pay you. And you will have to work hard not only for your pay as a director but also for your pay as a producer. But you’ll make films.
How Do You Start Making Documentaries?
Start by watching documentaries and taking notes on what you like and don’t like. Learn about the different types of documentaries. Take the time to learn about the different styles and techniques.
Those who pull the strings in the documentary industry expect you to be familiar with the different types of documentaries and why they’ve been so successful.
You need to have seen the work of filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Asif Kapadia, Joe Berlinger, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, etc. It also doesn’t hurt to know the genre’s pioneers, including Robert Flaherty and John Grierson. If you don’t know anything about documentaries, or narrative films, you’ll be at a big disadvantage.
Since the documentary industry is small and a niche one at that, it’s important that you watch as many films as possible. There will be many films you don’t like, which is fine, but you need to identify the films you do like
Find a documentary that inspires you and try to figure out what makes it stand out. Pay attention to how the director managed to keep the viewer interested. Based on the story, characters, and situations, try to figure out what problems the director faced and how he or she solved them.
Movies are made in the editing room, so take some time to think about how the director used editing to tell the story, how the music is used, and the different angles. A powerful documentary relies on many elements that work together to create a compelling story that touches people.
Do You Need to Go to Film School?
I didn’t go to film school – although I’d have loved the opportunity to attend the New York Film Academy!
Since there are many apprenticeships in the documentary field where you learn how to work on the front lines – the actual filming and editing – you don’t necessarily have to learn all the film theory that film school graduates usually do.
One of the hardest things about building a career as a documentary filmmaker is getting the first few jobs, the first few films. So you need to seek out those who can support your career and, if possible, connect with them, collaborate with them, and ally with them.
The classic way in the UK is to start as a researcher for other people’s films. It’s a combination of a journalism job and a production assistant job. You’re expected to research, look at archival footage, participate in many interviews, and take thorough notes.
Take as many opportunities as possible to attend shoots and work with various footage.
I myself worked on many films as a researcher and production assistant before I got my first opportunity as a director. In my case, I directed a series of short films for a TV series, followed by a major feature-length documentary (Soldat). I then worked as an assistant producer for a well-known director (Leslie Woodhead) before working solely as a director on various BBC and Arte productions.
Some come via the editing route – first as a runner, then as an assistant editor, and finally as an editor. This can be a great way to learn the craft, as you know exactly what needs to be shot on location to serve the story of your film. However, this path is rarer than becoming a researcher or production assistant.
How Do You Get Funding for a Documentary?
Although story ideas and access to a story are the basic requirements for making documentaries (and often the entry point to a well-connected production company), the hardest part for anyone in the documentary world – and this goes for producers, broadcasters, and individual filmmakers from top to bottom – is securing funding for their films.
My films have been funded by television networks – BBC, Channel 4, PBS, Arte, etc. – and financed through co-production agreements between these larger broadcasters and various smaller companies.
The typical financing cycle from when a documentary film production was pitched to a broadcaster to the point where the film was greenlit and went into production was usually at least eight months. This meant constant pressure to initiate, research, pitch, and advance future films while shooting the current film.
One of the problems with documentaries as opposed to feature films is that the result of a documentary is unpredictable. No matter how detailed your documentary proposal is, no one knows what you’ll get in front of the camera or how the story will develop during the production cycle. Any script created before production is an indicator but not a concrete plan that can be guaranteed to be implemented.
That’s why funders take a risk on almost every commissioned documentary.
There are, of course, other ways to obtain funding for a documentary. In the United States, private foundations such as the Sundance Institute have a large share of documentary funding.
If you have a big project, you should talk to one of the larger and more established production companies – Kartemquin Films or Participant in Los Angeles would be at the top of my list.
Also, don’t forget about film festivals. Sometimes you can secure funding through pitching sessions at such festivals – Sheffield Docfest, Sundance Film Festival, or Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle, for example – especially if you already have an initial backer behind your project or the support of a producer or editor with a good reputation.
Be prepared for rejection, and don’t give up if your first projects aren’t accepted. You’ve to persevere, and eventually, you’ll be able to make some of your projects happen. Finding the right producer and story may take a while, but there’s no other way than to persevere.
What Does a Documentary Director Do?
A documentary director wears many hats. In addition to writing and directing, they often take on the roles of producer, editor, and cinematographer. They also need to be skilled in research, fundraising, and marketing.
The job of a documentary director is to bring stories to life through film. To do this, they must first have a clear vision for the project. They must be able to communicate that vision to their team and inspire them to make it happen.
Once the project is underway, the director must manage the film process and ensure that all aspects of the production work together.
A successful documentary director must have both creative vision and technical expertise to engage in all stages of the documentary filmmaking process. He or she must also be able to work well with others and manage a budget.
To become a documentary director, you should continue honing your writing and filmmaking skills. Be on the lookout for opportunities to work on documentaries – as an intern, assistant, or volunteer. You must get your foot in the door to succeed in this competitive field.
I’d also advise you to get as much editing experience as possible. Movies are made in the editing room, and if you know how to put sequences together and advance a story arc in a film, that will help you greatly.
What Do You Need to Tell Stories as a Documentary Filmmaker?
One of the most important skills a documentary filmmaker must have is understanding how stories work on screen.
A documentary filmmaker is a storyteller. They can present complex subjects in a way that audiences can understand. They also have the skills to tell compelling stories that keep viewers engaged.
They must be able to identify interesting stories and then find creative ways to tell those stories.
Narrative is a cinematic term for telling a story that consists of many elements:
- The sequence of events or actions that make up the story;
- How you stage those events or actions in a planned film;
- The editing decisions you make to create flow and tell a story;
- The soundtrack to the film considers the music and the narrator’s voice.
The documentary filmmaker’s job is to bring these elements together to create a compelling and entertaining story. As a documentary filmmaker, you’re ultimately a storyteller. That’s how you earn your money.
What’s the Difference Between a Documentary Filmmaker and a Journalist?
Documentary filmmakers and journalists often have different goals when writing about a topic.
A documentary filmmaker may be more focused on making an entertaining or educational film, while a journalist is more interested in providing accurate information about a topic. But documentary filmmakers and journalists research their subjects extensively and strive for a balanced presentation.
Journalists usually report on current events to inform the public or draw attention to a particular issue.
In contrast, documentary filmmakers often tell stories that are more personal or historical. They may also focus on promoting social impact or raising awareness about a particular issue.
In terms of the filmmaking process, journalists typically work with a team of editors and producers to create their stories. At the same time, documentary filmmakers often have more control over the final product. This allows them to experiment with different storytelling techniques and decide which aspects of the story they want to focus on.
Both types of writers often interview experts and eyewitnesses to gain first-hand knowledge about their subject.
The main difference between documentary filmmakers and journalists is how they tell their stories. Journalists usually write in a more objective style, while documentary filmmakers often use techniques such as voice-over narration and dramatic music to create a more emotional impact.
How Much Does a Documentary Filmmaker Earn?
While working as a documentary director, I was fortunate to have a full-time salary. That’s relatively rare in the industry. Many have to take other jobs to pursue their dream of making documentaries.
Still, my friends laughed at the small amounts of money I received compared to the business and personal risk that many of my projects entailed (in my case, they were often investigative films in unsavory parts of the world).
You may be able to secure residual rights to your films and get paid long after the first screening or broadcast. These rights, and the extent to which they’re actively claimed, vary widely from country to country. For example, France secures auteur rights from directors much more effectively than the UK.
What Books About Filmmaking Shouldn’t Be Missing From Your Reading List?
Sheila Curran Bernard’s Documentary Storytelling: Creative Nonfiction on Screen is a must.
I’d also recommend Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye.
Build a Network of Other Filmmakers, Producers, and Distributors
One of the most important things a documentary filmmaker can do is build a strong network of connections. These connections can provide valuable leads on upcoming projects, help you get your foot in the door with established production companies, and allow you to collaborate with other filmmakers.
It’s essential to find a mentor or two to guide you. I was fortunate to have Leslie Woodhead help me on several occasions after working with him for a year on A Cry From the Grave.
The best way to make these contacts is to attend film festivals and industry events. These events are great places to meet other filmmakers, producers, and distributors who share your passion for documentary filmmaking.
And, of course, talk about the films you’re working on.
You can also use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to connect with other professionals in the industry.
You’ve to realize that there are only a handful of powerful players in the industry – unfortunately, not all of them are ethical. Many decision-makers are deeply “political” people who often have egos to match. If you’re uncomfortable with office politics, you may be at odds with personal goals and ambitions. Be warned.
If You Were to Leave This Profession, What Would You Do?
After more than twenty years as a documentary filmmaker, I don’t make films actively as I used to. There was a time when I delivered a couple of films a year.
So I’m probably well qualified to talk about life after the profession!
Today, I run an independent publishing company and also write creative fiction. The great thing about that’s that I’m completely free financially and otherwise. It also means I don’t have to deal with the toxic people who hang around the documentary industry (although there are many wonderful souls there).
I feel privileged to have had a good time as a filmmaker, full of unique experiences around the world, rare encounters, and the opportunity to share messages that are important to me.
The challenge for those leaving the profession is to find ways to express their spirit, which is likely full of good intentions, creativity, and unique storytelling skills gained while directing documentaries.
Things to Consider When Making Your Documentary Movies
- Shoot as much footage as possible and take advantage of new technologies
- Find a good team to work with – cinematographer, sound engineer, and composer
- Shoot your documentary in the most interesting and visually appealing way possible
- Edit your documentary carefully to make sure it flows well and tells a compelling story
- Find a documentary producer who shares your vision and collaborates ethically on projects
- Learn about the business side of documentary filmmaking and how to market your work
- Put pressure on yourself to learn new things and experiment with your style
Write or Collaborate With Someone to Write Well-Researched Proposals and Treatments
A treatment is a document you can use to communicate your vision for a documentary. Writing a treatment is important because it gives the producer or executive producer an idea of what you plan to film and how you plan to do it. This will help them decide whether or not they want to invest in your project.
If you don’t know how to write a treatment, here are some steps:
- Think about what kind of film you want to make and what kind of story you’ve in mind. For example, do you want the film to be funny? Serious? Documentaries can tell many different kinds of stories – not all of them have happy endings!
- Decide what scenes should be in the film and in what order, from the beginning (opening) to the middle (narrative arc) to the end (resolution). Make sure that each scene is in a larger context and that the other scenes have meaning because all scenes should build on each other and work toward a goal or conclusion at the end of Act 1/beginning of Act 2; this will keep the audience engaged! If you’re unsure, you can get another person’s opinion – just ask them!
The research phase is the backbone of a documentary. This is where you develop your script and storyboard and build relationships with the people in your film. This time is also crucial in determining how long it’ll take you to complete the project and what budget you’ll need.
Before you begin this production phase, ask yourself:
- How much do I know about my subject?
- What information do I need to tell my story effectively?
- Do I want an expert or someone with personal experience in front of the camera?
Then create a list of potential interviewees who best fit your desired storytelling structure based on their expertise (or emotional connection) to the topic.
Develop the Narrative of Your Film
As a documentary filmmaker, it’s important to develop your film’s narrative. You need to find the story for your documentary and write a treatment. This can take some time – it depends on how much research you’ve already done.
Once you’ve decided on your topic and started researching, you can start developing ideas for possible narratives on that topic. In doing so, you’ll analyze what information is relevant to your story and ask the questions that will drive the narrative. For example:
- What’re the most interesting aspects of this topic?
- How did these things come about?
- How did they affect society as a whole?
The next step is to create a rough sketch of how everything might fit together into a story arc with a natural beginning, middle, and endpoints (or “beats”). Think about how these beats interact with each other and how they interact with the characters’ arcs (the overall emotional journeys). If there’s not enough drama within a particular section or story arc, add more conflict or tension until it’s worth watching!
Choose the Main Medium and Style You Want to Use
As you develop your story, consider what media and style you want to use. This will help you determine what equipment you’ll need to shoot and how much time you’ll need to edit.
Think about an order for presenting your story.
Once you’ve determined your concept and characters, you need to figure out how you will present your story. Many directors use a “three-act structure,” which is often used in Hollywood films but can also be used in documentaries. The three-act structure is divided into acts 1, 2, and 3:
Act 1: This is where you introduce the main characters and themes of the film to the audience; you establish what the story is about; you introduce any subplots that will appear later in the film; you briefly tell the back story, if necessary; and then you move on to Act 2! Act 1 should usually take about 10-15 minutes.
Act 2: Anytime after 15 minutes in a TV or movie series episode. This is where you get into the main body of your story. The art here is to build tension and utilize conflict in your story to keep the audience engaged in the overall story you are telling.
Act 3: In Act 3, you need to resolve the story one way or another. You’ll pull some storylines and characters together and allow others to slide. Oftentimes you’ll be looking for the most emotional and meaningful climax you can engineer, which stays true to your story’s overall meaning and message.
Think about your opening scene
The first scene of your documentary needs to be interesting and compelling. It should also be memorable because viewers will likely remember a documentary’s first and final scenes (or any movie, for that matter). The opening scene also sets the tone for the rest of the film and should be a good introduction to your subject.
If you’re filming at a person’s home, you should show them getting ready for bed or preparing dinner – these are good ways to show viewers that you want them to get to know this person as more than just an interviewee talking into the camera’s lens.
Think about your final scene
Once you’ve come up with your story, you need to think about how you want the final scene to play out. This is the emotional impact and overall message you want viewers to take away with them after watching your documentary.
Think about how you want them to feel when they see this scene in their mind’s eye. Think about what questions viewers might ask themselves after seeing the scene.
Create a Storyboard if You Can
A storyboard is a visual representation of the narrative of your documentary. It contains key scenes or shots you want to use in your film. By creating a storyboard, you can get an idea of what your documentary will look like in the end and what resources you’ll need (e.g., actors and props). Storyboards also allow you to practice directing by visually putting your ideas together before filming begins. This way, you can determine if what’s on paper works well before trying it out with actors or other resources.
Documentary film storyboards are not normally done to the same level as you’ll find in feature films, but you can use apps such as CeltX to rough out the visual flow of your project.
Directing Is One of the Most Important Parts of Producing a Documentary
Directing a documentary is one of the most important parts of producing a documentary and can be very rewarding if you do it right. The director is the person who makes the final decisions about the film and its direction. Without them, a documentary project has no chance of success.